The COVID-19 fall curve for Shelby County is rising at an unprecedented rate. There are 8,400 active COVID-19 cases, not too far from most of all time.
The Omicron variant has fully arrived in Shelby County. The evidence is largely free of take-away tests in the long lines at test sites and on pharmacy shelves. Case numbers are likely to increase as the week progresses as public test sites come back online after the holiday weekend.
More:What you need to know about the COVID-19 Omicron variant in Shelby County
With active cases and the daily average increasing over the past few weeks and days, one key metric of the pandemic – hospital stays – has not seen a sharp rise. And that can make all the difference, noted one expert.
Dr. Manoj Jain, a key member of the Memphis and Shelby County’s Covid-19 Task Force, focused on the people in the hospital with COVID-19, not the thousands of people who contract COVID-19, during an interview on Sunday .
He found there were 164 people in hospitals in the Memphis area on Dec. 22, the latest data available. That was up from 121 the week before, an increase of more than 30%, but it lagged the exponential growth of the fall curve.
“I think there will be fewer hospitalizations relative to the case curve,” Jain said.
He attributed this decline in hospitalization rates to widespread immunity to previous strains of COVID in the community – from both natural infections and widespread vaccinations. A second factor that could keep people away from the hospital is the virulence of Omicron itself, he said. It could be milder than previous varieties.
“It’s unclear … whether causing disease is less serious. We believe it is, but we’re not sure,” Jain said.
What the data shows
Jain isn’t the only one predicting fewer hospital stays. Preliminary, non-peer-reviewed data from the UK and South Africa, which had Omicron waves earlier than the American South, showed lower hospitalization rates.
And local data and epidemiological history seem to suggest that even as it sets records for case numbers, the Omicron wave could be milder in terms of hospital admissions and deaths.
A year ago, on December 28, 2020, there were 6,761 active COVID-19 cases in Memphis and Shelby Counties, which was the most ever and one of several records broken during the deadly winter surge. And of those active cases, 580 people with COVID-19 were in hospitals in the Memphis area. This corresponded to 8.5% of the active cases.
In August, during the virus delta wave, high active case numbers meant high hospital admissions. On August 18, there were 7,701 active COVID-19 cases and 646 people in hospitals in the Memphis area with COVID-19. These hospital admissions accounted for 8.4% of the active cases.
While not an apples comparison, the 164 people in Memphis Area hospitals with COVID-19 on December 22, divided by the 8,400 currently active cases is 1.9%.
New Wednesday hospital admission data is slated to be released Thursday, giving the region a better idea of whether rising Omicron cases are popping up in the hospital en masse. Local forecasts assume that this will not happen.
The University of Tennessee Health Science Center posted weekly forecasts on its website during the pandemic. The most recent forecasts differ significantly from those of the past.
For much of the past two years, the projected case curve and hospital admissions chart have been mirrored. When one was projected to ascend, the other was projected to follow.
The most recent projections show a steeply rising case curve and chart of hospital admissions anticipating slight but not overwhelming growth that could overwhelm hospitals in the immediate future. It is predicted that there will be around 200 people in the hospital on January 5th.
While emergency room directors warned of the possibility, for context, Memphis did not rely heavily on emergency care standards and treatment rationing during the delta surge, and withstood more than 700 people with COVID-19 in the hospital.
More:Should you get a COVID-19 test before going to Christmas parties? And if so, when?
“We really win”
Jain looks past the Omicron wave and into a future where COVID-19 will emerge but life will not dominate. He noted that the difference between the spike in late 2020 and the Omicron wave in Memphis and Shelby Counties is now continuing.
While key treatments are lacking and a newly approved pill is not readily available, vaccines and drugs have made the job of medical professionals a lot easier.
“For those of us on the front lines who need to deal with this. We have seen people die helpless in the early stages of this epidemic in treatment as well as prevention. We just need the population to take it up so we can get back to normal life as we know it, “Jain said.
“We have to look at it from a scientific perspective. And say, ‘Here we have arrived, this is what we have achieved’. And yes, it was difficult and tiring. And it’s brutal, but we have to persevere, we have to be resilient to continue the fight. And then we realize and realize that we are really winning, “Jain said.
Samuel Hardiman covers the Memphis City Council, Politics, Energy and Environment for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman.